Wednesday, March 23, 2011

On the occasion of World Water Day

Water wise - Dry Gardening

Today, I went on to a golf course with a golfer friend, a treat I have been promising myself – a non-golfer - for long. Having lived across a golf course in Wellington (in Nilgiris) and having seen avid, never-say-die golfers tee and putt, I have always been eager to witness the sport close quarters. The breathtaking beauty of the pines and cypresses, the tapestry of rolling grass cropped short, sprinklers tending the grass lovingly and the serene atmosphere instantly transported me into meditation zone. But it also set me thinking that if all this ‘exotic’ beauty is at the cost of precious water resources that are running scarce for urban utility by every passing season, then is it worth it?

Many leafy localities of Nairobi are reeling under water shortage and have to depend on water tankers for their daily requirements – for drinking and even, bathing. Swank houses in kosher Karen and Langata boast of sprawling gardens and their cry for water, at times, seems more poignant then that of their human denizens. How can one tend lawns and nurse blooms under the equatorial sun, with rain months away, even delayed further sometimes? I have no idea how gardens survive and flourish under the constraining circumstances, but one person has found a solution, which he has implemented in his five acres. That Barry Cameron is a civil engineer and has worked in the area of urban water supply for four decades in several countries of Africa is no mere coincidence. Chairman of Kenya Horticultural Society, Barry is a votary of “Dry Gardening” and his garden relies on rain water and does away with extraneous watering!

Barry inherited his five-acre plot in Tigoni – 20 kms North of Nairobi – with its eucalyptus plantations and coffee bushes and his wife had planted hundreds of fuchsias in myriad colours along with seasonals in the patio patch. Barry’s own forays into gardening began only after her death, 20 years ago, and as he grappled with the problem of maintenance in the view of water scarcity in drier months, he realized that drastic measures were called for.

In, what I think, was a bold move Barry removed the fuchsias (“they are water thirsty”) that graced his garden and planted succulents and drought-resistant plants in rockeries and pockets around the house. Today, sedums and sempervivums carpet the ground in vivid colours. Not many know but sedums can vie with the best of seasonals in floral competition. And that the fleshy leaves of sempervivum – resembling curled flower-heads – when flushed rosette in hot sun can look astounding. In India, often people confuse succulents with cactus which are predominantly desert plants that sport spikes and thorns and which are rather stark. Succulents, on the other hand, come in mind-boggling variety and look very attractive even as container plants.  Barry has innovatively transformed a satellite dish into a container.
Resilient shrubs of plumbago and tecoma line the edges of the succulent bed, with the added advantage of attracting bees and butterflies. These greens survive, nay flower with gay abandon, in the absence of water, but Barry litters the bed with leaf mulch obtained from his forest floor to prevent excessive loss of water from the soil.  

Altering the forest, itself, was a different ballgame. He knew that the water-guzzlers eucalyptus had to go to give way to indigenous trees. He picked up seeds of native trees from his jaunts in the forests and planted them on his plot. By trial and error, quick-growing trees started jostling for space, the ones that survived and grew tall formed the canopy, others sprouted in its shade, yet others got weeded out. Barry was witnessing an ecological sere develop in front of his eyes and soon the plantations were taking shape of indigenous woods.

Today, he has hundreds of Meru oaks, a threatened species much-valued for its hardwood, “his children’s pension plan”, as he calls it humorously.  Then there is the endangered Prunus Africana whose fruits draw birds and which provides a good nesting site. The flat-topped Acacia (abysinnica) and the ubiquitous Nandi flame are there in good measure, too. That indigenous trees help restore the ecological balance of a habitat is testified by the arrival of Colobus monkeys and greater variety of birds and butterflies in his garden over the years.

Visual beauty, too, can be redefined if we are willing to look deeper. A natural forest may not have the majesty of manicured greens and conifers; it may a look a wee rundown, but that is what keeps the earth in good shape. It is a little like the junk food we eat; we cannot imagine life without deep-fried goodies and snacks, though we know that they are calorie-laden and nutrition-deficient. It is only when we are beleaguered with lifestyle diseases that we mend our ways, by when it is too late. We who are used to seeing classic lines of lawns and streamlined flower beds may take a while to adjust our tastes to a wayward natural garden that tells its own story. But walking through the labyrinthine pathways of Barry’s home-forest brought to my mind settings, from books I read as a child, of summer holidays, brook-side picnics and adventure.

Often we hear it being said that, “future wars will be fought over waters” and we all know that water as a commodity is getting scarce, but we do not have the courage to go the Barry-way. We had better let nature take its own course, with a little tweaking, maybe, if we wish to conserve Water.

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